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The Two Worlds of Los Angeles | The Nation

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The Two Worlds of Los Angeles

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Marc Cooper
Marc Cooper, a Nation contributing editor, is an associate professor of professional practice and director of...

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At the biggest Democratic event of the campaign season, Obama argued that the coming election is a choice between the past and the future rather than a referendum on his first two years in office.

He'll probably fend off J.D. Hayworth, but in order to win he's lost most of his principles.

Cockeyed Optimismo

While the political void left by Bradley and Riordan has yet to be filled by a coordinated and articulate progressive political alternative force that can fight on behalf of ZIP codes like 90059, some hopeful steps in that direction have been taken [see Candaele and Dreier, page 24]. Still, organized white Angeleno liberals of the sort that voted for Bradley in 1974 have become nearly extinct, having retreated out of the city or behind the walls of mushrooming guarded and gated enclaves. Other middle-class white communities have been swept into various secession movements that, if successful, could further increase the economic and social apartheid of Los Angeles. Many lower-income whites, meanwhile, have fled to declining "crabgrass" suburbs and have no political champions.

The growing Asian community, for its part, has as many economically troubled pocket communities as it has glitteringly prosperous ones. But the Asian poor, apart from some positive but small stirrings in the Korean community, have yet to gain any political voice.

LA's black population--except for a sliver of professionals and well-paid government employees and teachers--is still shoehorned largely into the bleak cement labyrinths of South Central, which is in, and adjacent to, 90059. But these once all-black neighborhoods are now turning Latino. Even in 90059, in the heart of legendary Watts, epicenter of the 1965 riots, Latinos now slightly outnumber blacks.

Blacks feel the squeeze beyond real estate. There's a clear employer preference and bias for Latinos over blacks, and the latter now struggle to attain even the most menial of jobs. Much more than any CIA conspiracy, these hard economic facts are what allowed the crack (and gang) epidemic to become so strong in the southern part of the city.

African-American political clout reached its zenith in the seventies, helping to elect Bradley and a few black councilmembers. But the past twenty years have seen a steady and marked decline in both black political and economic power. The dearth of black leadership in Los Angeles has reached such a crisis level that the community's most prominent political figure is a multimillionaire developer--Danny Bakewell, who, with his shopping-mall deals and silver Rolls-Royce, hardly inspires much confidence as an advocate for the poor. And often, Bakewell on the one side and some elected Latino officials like State Senator Richard Polanco on the other have been the star protagonists in ugly black/Latino political confrontations over scarce government resources and political sinecures. "The black political establishment never lived up to its professed ethos of inclusion," says Joe Hicks, director of the LA Human Relations Commission and a longtime African-American activist. "As the city complexion changed toward Latino they never said, 'OK, we are going to represent everybody.' They continued to say, 'We are black political representatives.' This has generated a lot of anger and resentment from the newly arrived and often majority-Latino population."

Against this backdrop of a white community in flight and backlash and a black community in a state of defeat, any real hope for political change on behalf of the poor has defaulted to the rising Latino community. It is the only force capable of spearheading and leading a new multiracial progressive coalition, for two reasons: its sheer numbers and its own rising optimism and energy. It is no longer a question of whether Los Angeles is going to transition to Latino leadership. With 64 percent of LA first graders speaking Spanish as a first language, the transition is only a question of when--and how. There's already a palpable sense of the coming empowerment among the Latino population. Even within the bounds of their current unequal situation, LA Latinos express an optimism about their general situation that sharply differentiates them from the defeatism that affects blacks and the fears that haunt whites. In one poll after another, Latinos score five to ten points higher than others in expressing optimism about the city, its schools, even the elusive issue of police reform. New Latino/labor alliances have brought stirring organizing and political victories, further adding to the sense of rising expectations. Already 38 percent of the LA delegation to the state legislature is Latino. Two credible Latino candidates are running in next year's mayoral election.

"But identity politics can be treacherous," says Carlos Porras, executive director of the environmental justice group Communities for a Better Environment. Having butted heads repeatedly in the past few years with new Latino-dominated municipal administrations in the impoverished and heavily polluted southeast LA County suburbs, Porras says: "It's not just about the color of your skin. It's about your values, your principles."

The coming transition to Latino power offers no automatic solution to the current great divide. The challenge before the new Latino political class is whether it can be truly inclusive. Fernando Guerra, for one, is guardedly optimistic. "Most cities that have transitioned to black or Latino leadership have not done very well. But that's been mostly in bad economic times," he says. "With LA we have a chance to be the first city that does well economically as Latinos move into power. The question is, Can those new leaders come in with a new paradigm? Or do they just bring all the old stuff covered with a Latino face?"

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